What do you think about stevia?

I think that stevia is one of the best natural sweeteners available. It is natural, virtually calorie-free, and can be used as is or in baking and cooking.

Stevia is a deciduous shrub that grows naturally in the southwestern United States but is originally native to Central and South America. It's about two to three feet tall, and it is unique in terms of its taste. The sweetness of stevia depends upon the species involved; there are several hundred different species of this plant and only a dozen or so seem to have the sweetness characteristics desired. The chemical composition of stevia is complicated, and there are dozens of different glycosides involved in its sweet taste. Among the most important of these glycosides, however, are steviosides, rebaudiosides, and dulcosides. In December 2008, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) took a major step toward recognition of stevia as a rightful member of the food supply. While the FDA did not grant approval for stevia itself to be added to the Generally Recognized as Safe list (GRAS list), it did award GRAS status to a purified extract from one of the stevia glycosides (rebaudioside A, also called reb A). This purified stevia extract is being marketed under a variety of different brand names, including Truvia and PureVia. While we would prefer to see FDA recognition of stevia itself rather than a purified stevia extract, we are glad to have this natural sweetener brought further into the public spotlight in a favorable way.

While it is possible to buy fresh leaves or dried leaves from the plant itself, when you purchase stevia in the store, you are most likely going to be purchasing a powdered extract from the plant or a liquid concentrate. Many different glycosides-including steviosides and rebaudiosides-are found in the powdered extracts and some may have health-supportive properties.

If you purchase the liquid concentrate, the composition of the stevia depends on the method of production. Sometimes these liquid concentrates are produced by boiling the leaves directly in water and sometimes the leaves are steeped in water or a water-plus-alcohol mixture. Although it's not clear from the research exactly which form of stevia is the most health supportive, there is no question that stevia extracts in any form come out far ahead of white table sugar or high fructose corn syrup in terms of their potential health benefits. Among the possible benefits here are potential hypoglycemic (blood sugar lowering) effects and potential hypotensive (blood pressure lowering) effects.

Stevia has been used in many cultures as both a sweetener and a medicinal agent. Thanks to an FDA decision in December 2008, one purified extract from stevia (rebaudioside A) fits into the Generally Recognized as Safe (GRAS) category and can be found in drinks, beverages, and other products in the U.S. marketplace. Stevia is also approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for sale as a dietary supplement. One thing you'll notice about stevia is that it is very sweet. In its refined, white powdery extract form in which there is a very high concentration of steviosides, it may be several hundred times sweeter than regular table sugar. It should therefore be used sparingly when substituted for sugar, whether it is for sweetening beverages, in baked goods recipes, or for any other ways that you choose to use it.

Like many people, you may be wondering why I don't feature stevia in my book, The World's Healthiest Foods, or on the WHFoods website. The reason is that while I think stevia can be a great natural substitute for sugar, notably for those who have blood sugar concerns, stevia is not usually purchased as a whole food (in the fresh or dried leaf form), but rather as a powdered extract or liquid concentrate. This key difference between a whole food and an extracted component also applies to the GRAS-listed extract from stevia-rebaudioside A-which is added to boost sweetness in beverages and other foods. In my book and on our website, I try to spotlight the unique benefits that come from consumption of whole, natural foods.

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